Bowing and bows: Christmas shopping in Tokyo

Christmas shopping in Tokyo isn’t exactly like at home.

For starters, no worries about holiday crowds. It’s not that there aren’t crowds: It’s just that the malls are packed *all* the time here. Every Saturday and Sunday is an elbow to elbow experience. That was true in August and it’s true in December. If I want to avoid crowds, I need to shop through the week.

Since Japan is not a Christian nation, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect during this season. Although most Japanese won’t be celebrating the religious holiday, they do somewhat observe the festival aspects of the holiday. When we’re out and about shopping at malls, we hear Christmas songs — in English — piped over the loud speakers. We also see some Christmas decorations. It’s a lot more subtle than at home, but there’s a little greenery and some holiday-themed posters do pop up here and there. (New Year’s is the big holiday celebrated this time of year, so we do see a fair amount of 2015 Year of the Ram decorations.)

On a recent trip to Tachikawa, we did manage to find this giant inflatable display:

Xmas pic3

Many stores offer a few Christmas items for sale. I found an adorable little snowman bowling set to give to Liam for Christmas. (The pins are maybe an inch high.) We also love the Christmas-themed tenugi we purchased to hang in our front foyer. The decorative cloths have numerous uses in Japan — gift wrapping and decorative display are two — and although most showcase traditional Japanese designs, almost every store selling them has at least one or two tenugis with a Christmas motif.

Xmas 4

Regardless of what we’re buying, shopping is always an experience here. For example, a couple of weeks ago I purchased a small stocking stuffer for Wil. It was an inexpensive gift, costing only 600 yen, or roughly $6.

When I handed her the small trinket, the clerk smiled and nodded. Using her limited English and my (very) limited Japanese, we managed to come to the joint conclusion that my purchase was a gift. And then things turned very Japanese….

My gift was meticulously wrapped in several pieces of tissue paper and taped. I was asked – through gestures — to select a fancy cloth bag for it to be swaddled in. The bag was tied with a pretty red bow and then the item – my $6 item – was lovingly placed inside a sturdy store bag that was nicer than most of the gift bags I’ve used this year for my presents.

Shopping in Japan

At this point, if I were in Ohio, the clerk would probably hand the bag to me across the counter, maybe say something like “Merry Christmas,” and I’d be on my way.

But not here.

Still smiling, she walked out from behind the counter and came and stood in front of me. Holding the bag with both hands, she bowed slightly and handed it to me. I believe there may have been another bow or two and I was free to leave with my trinket.

To be clear, the elaborate wrapping ceremony and the bowing rituals aren’t just a Christmas or holiday tradition here – it happens to some degree almost every time I purchase something – but I’ve been experiencing it a lot more lately thanks to all my Christmas shopping.

It takes some getting used to. Last week, I purchased a pair of heels to wear to an upcoming holiday party. My clerk was amazing – she deftly managed to figure out my correct shoe size on the first try – and she graciously handled my inability to communicate in Japanese. When it came time to pay, she figured out we didn’t want to carry a large shoe box around so….she individually wrapped and taped each pump into a swathe of tissue paper. Then, she bundled the shoes into a shopping bag and taped it shut.

I have never in my entire lifetime had a clerk wrap individual shoes in tissue paper for me, but, okay, so far, so good. But she wouldn’t hand me the bag. Through gestures, she made it clear that we were to leave the store, which happened to be in a mall and open to the hallway. Once I set foot outside the shop, she stepped forward and smiling sweetly, handed the bag over with both hands and a bow.

All this fuss is a little embarrassing for me. I’m not exactly used to getting bowed to on a regular basis, but I must admit, I also can’t help but enjoy the ritual of it. It’s another aspect of the Japanese culture that intrigues me. I appreciate that they take such pride and care in making the shopping experience pleasant. Through the wrapping and the bowing and the purposeful gesture of handing the purchase to the customer, they manage to elevate the commonplace exchange of money for goods into something elegant and graceful. It makes the stress of holiday shopping a lot less, well, stressful.

7 thoughts

    1. I know, right? You should have seen me the morning I showed up to the mall early for a hair appointment and had to walk the length of it with staff members from every. single. store. bowing and greeting me the entire way. So uncomfortable!


    1. Thanks for the Christmas greetings, Aunt Georgia! Sushi sounds like an awesome part of a holiday dinner. We opted for leg of lamb but hope to fit some sushi in this weekend. We’d love to see any and all of you over here! Merry Christmas!


  1. WE are all enjoying your travels. Some of us may even get to see you in Japan(Andrew and Abby) Andrew is looking for ski resorts. We wish all three of you a wonderful and adventursome holiday. With love, Georgia and Ken and all our family who happen to be gathered here. In the process of cooking sushi (Sterling) and a proper English roast beef dinner.


  2. I do love this aspect of the culture here. They truly appreciate every shopper in a way that is incredible. I’ve been walked to the door several times and deeply bowed to as if I just paid for their next week’s meals. America could learn some things from here.

    On the flip side, if you are in a hurry all of the care and wrapping rituals will hinder your schedule, maybe this is a good thing. We are rushing too much through this life I think sometimes.


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